December 31, 2008
Solving the riddle
Overnight, they lost their homes, their jobs, their life savings. At nine in the morning, they were well off; by noon, they were impecunious.
All the hard work and planning, the expensive education, the sacrifices, all the good fortune, the street smarts and common sense and old wisdom they had fallen upon or inherited or learned on their own -- gone in a matter of hours, sucked away by the greed and immorality, the cravenness and stupidity of those in charge.
I've seen this movie before.
Thirty years ago this month, before Freddie Mac and Bernie Madoff and failing automakers, before Henry Paulson and Merrill Lynch and billion-dollar bailouts that don't make a dent, tens of thousands of Iranian Jews watched helplessly as their lives unraveled through no fault of their own. It was the height of the Islamic Revolution, the climax of months of anxiety and stalemate.
In Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere in the West, families who had left Iran "for the summer," to "wait out the troubles" and "return in time for the kids to start school in September" realized there was no going back. From far away, they watched as their homes and businesses were confiscated in Iran, as they and anyone else deemed sympathetic to the shah were fired from their jobs, tried in absentia and condemned to death.
Strangers in a strange land, they had no bank accounts, no credit, no knowledge of the workings of Western commercial systems. One minute they were successful professionals and artists and entrepreneurs; the next minute they were being yelled at by impatient clerks at discount stores, where no one cares who you once were -- either learn English or go home.
And yet they endured. Most even triumphed.
I've wondered about this for 30 years, and more so in the last few months: How, I've asked myself, did our parents do it? How did they suffer so much loss with such grace, find their footing in a foreign land, start over and build again, often better than the first time?
Women in their 20s and 30s, with young children and no income, a husband stranded back in Iran; elderly men who spoke not a word of English, who had survived the ghetto and the poverty of old Iran, thrived under the shah only to see it all disappear; middle-aged couples with elderly parents and teenage sons and daughters -- three generations of loss and alienation under one roof.
Where did my parents find the strength, the faith that sustained their own optimism and made the success of my generation possible?
Ironically, it was the economic meltdown of 2008 that helped me solve the riddle of 1978 and '79. Through the torrent of bad economic news and the sorry spectacle of reckless dealers and malicious trustees and criminally ignorant public officials, I spent the better part of last year reliving the worst moments of the Iranian revolution. Both in terms of personal loss and collective angst, the parallels between us then and us now are obvious.
There must be a lesson here, I thought.
This is what I remember of the years directly after the revolution: my mother on the phone with her sisters a dozen times a day; my father sitting down with friends and strangers from Iran, talking into the early morning hours about what could be done, and how, and at what cost.
My brother-in-law walking every square foot of Westwood Boulevard and the downtown jewelry district, stopping every time he ran into another Iranian so they could bring each other up to date on what they had learned most recently. My cousin moving into her parents' two-bedroom apartment with her three young daughters and two unmarried sisters.
My grandmother baby-sitting her grandnieces and nephews after school so their parents could work. Entire families moving to small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, where a son or daughter was attending college.
Kids my age going to school in the daytime and working (illegally) at liquor stores at night to help pay the rent. Shabbat dinners with seven aunts and their husbands and children; Passover seders with 62 cousins and everyone's in-laws.
We were lost, but never alone.
It's one of those traits -- this enhanced sense of community, this emphasis on the value of friendship and family, even if you don't like the friends or the family, this recognition that we are defined as much by what we do individually as what we achieve as a group -- that have as many drawbacks as advantages.
It's the old village mentality, the need to belong at almost any cost, that is often deplored in traditional societies such as our own. It's a tribal force that breeds conformity, nurtures intolerance, stifles the tendency toward originality and privacy on the part of the individual. At the same time, though, it's a safety net like no other, an organized base of support that can catch a people -- even Western people -- in free fall, a sure thing when nothing else is for certain. It's the one place, the one truth, you know holds no surprises.
"Why must we visit our great-great-aunt and her weird children and snooty grandchildren every time she invites us to her house?" my sisters and I used to bug my mother in those years.
"We see her because she's your great-great-aunt," my mother would say, as if that was supposed to make any sense.
We didn't like the aunt, and she didn't like us, and still, she came to our house, and we went to hers, and we all made nice to each other like little robots on some kind of mission of cordiality, the purpose of which is only now becoming evident to me: She wasn't important in and of herself, this aunt. She was a link in the chain, a knot in the safety net, and so were we, and so were the weird children and the snooty grandkids.
In a fractured society, amid fear of the future and shame about the past, where so many families are standing at the edge of poverty and unemployment, and so many of the trusted have proven unworthy of trust, the old village may just be the place we all want to go back to.
For the children of those Iranian Jews who weathered the storm three decades ago and are caught in its midst again this year, the question is, have we kept enough of our parents' values to be able to find our way back to the safety and support of the tribe?
For the rest of the country, descendants of those immigrant communities who came to America a hundred years ago and built the country into what it is today, the question is, will they look to the past, discover the secret of their parents' survival and come together once again as a family?
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.